"Take good care of it, it's my whole life".
In his play As You Like It, the British playwright William Shakespeare wrote the immortal monologue that begins “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. Spoken by the ousted Duke’s second son, Jaques, it then proceeds to list the seven ages of life from birth to death; a metaphor of a person’s expected lifespan as play with seven acts.
For the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon this expectation was unfulfilled. At the age of 26, five months pregnant, she died in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.
In the two years prior to her death, in the South of France where her family had sent her to live with her grandparents for safe keeping, Solomon produced over 1300 gouache paintings depicting the life she had lived thus far. Self-edited down to 800 numbered works, Solomon’s visual diary, “Leben? Oder Theater?” (“Life? Or Theater?”), is a work in three parts, a prologue, a story of her first love and an epilogue.
From her teenage years in Berlin, her attendance at the Berlin Academy of Art and the rise of Nazism through her love for the voice teacher Alfred Wolfsohn and his relationship with herself and her step-mother, the opera singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg to her final three years of discovery and deprivation in the South of France her paintings include passages of text that often overlay the paintings along with musical references and notations.
Such were the dramatic possibilities Solomon wove into her work that is was present as a commissioned opera at the 2014 Salzburg Festival. This adaptation of Solomon’s life’s work was met with a mixed appreciation.
As the New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote “Punishingly long, at nearly two and a half intermissionless hours, the story never gains emotional traction. While Mr. Dalbavie’s score is unstintingly refined, there is more vitality in the images from “Leben? Oder Theater?” projected on the stark white walls of the set than in the music.”
Whereas when presented as a gallery exhibition the power in the works can speak for themselves.
As the LA Times reported the Director of the San Francisco Museum’s Connie Wolf saying about the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco’s 2011 exhibition "It lives with you, it lingers with you, I was so moved by the power of her art.... There are so many moving stories from this period, this one is about the power of art, how Charlotte struggled with her own fate."
Leben? Oder Theater? is currently on show at Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne until the 18th of October.